But in the death of Garner, a father of six from Staten Island, N.Y., these things weren’t enough for a grand jury to bring charges against the officer who killed him. Think about that again: None of the overwhelming circumstances and evidence—from the video taken by a passerby to the fact that the asthmatic Garner was being wrestled to the ground through the use of a move that the New York City Police Department banned back in 1993—was enough for a grand jury to say there could be a trial. None of it was enough to say a crime had been committed.
What is it going to take?
I didn’t expect an indictment, not because I had any inside insight or knowledge beyond being a black woman who grew up reading the newspaper, but because, of course, there would be no indictment. The victim was black and the perpetrator was a white police officer. We’ve seen this scenario over and over again. When it comes to black people killed by white people—especially if that person has police ties—getting a case heard in a courtroom is often the hardest part. Mostly what you get are trials of public opinion with black victims being judged and measured, demonized and dragged in the media.
Yet as we watch character assassination—he smoked weed, he resisted arrest, he stole cigarillos, he sold loose cigarettes, he looked like a “demon”—obscure facts, such as that he was unarmed and people don’t deserve to die over routine traffic stops and petty crimes, we are faced with another cynical response:
Get over it. This is your “justice.”
African Americans are told that if we want justice, we must go again and again, politely and patiently, to the same system that has oppressed us historically, as if we’re a racewide Oliver Twist, asking, “May we please have some justice?” Then, when we are told, “Justice denied,” we are expected to politely shut up and go away because our anguish and tears are upsetting and scary to a public that loathes to be reminded of our racial inequities in this not-so-glittering age of Obama.
This is why we get upset. This is why people in Ferguson, Mo., took to the streets in protest for months after the death of teen Michael Brown, killed by then-Officer Darren Wilson. This is why Brown’s stepfather and mother cried out in anguish when no indictment was announced in their son’s death. This is why the stepfather screamed for the streets to “burn,” something police in St. Louis County are considering pressing charges against him for—claiming that his words may have incited some to riot.
You’re not supposed to yell fire in a crowded theater—but what if the theater is actually on fire? Being black and living in America is, in some respects, to always be on fire, under threat of fire, yet we are being told not to see the flames. We are being told to deny the explosions around us in the form of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford—don’t see those flames, don’t see those lives burn, pretend that you don’t feel the heat.
The nonindictment in Garner’s death shows that we need to go further than body cameras on arresting officers—we need a systemic shift in how police business is conducted. Law enforcement in this country is on fire. How many more will have to die until all see the flames?